PM’s prize for bringing hope to families

University of Otago Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer Research Group members (from left) Erin...
University of Otago Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer Research Group members (from left) Erin Gardiner, Dr Jeremy Rossaak, Pauline Harawira, Prof Parry Guilford, Maybelle McLeod and Associate Prof Karyn Paringatai have won the 2023 Prime Minister's Science Prize. Photo: supplied
When Parry Guilford is asked why he has spent nearly 30 years looking for the genetic cause of stomach cancer, he loves to paraphrase lyrics from The Pogues song Fairytale of New York — "I took your dreams and put them with my own".

"I took the dreams of the whānau and what they wanted, which was to get rid of this awful disease.

"And I put that with my own dreams, my own ambitions, and that’s what’s driven me through this project for the last 28 years."

It is a philosophy that has helped the University of Otago Centre for Translational Cancer Research professor and his Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer Research Group win the Te Pūiaki Putaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Prime Minister’s Science Prize for 2023.

The $500,000 prize was awarded in Wellington last night for the innovative partnership between members of the McLeod family, their community, University of Otago geneticists and Tauranga Hospital clinicians.

The research started in 1995 after a member of the McLeod family contacted Prof Guilford about their strong history of stomach cancer, which was killing members of her family. She wanted to find the gene responsible.

Together, the partnership identified a genetic mutation in the CDH1 gene, which was causing the inherited condition.

The researchers went on to develop a genetic test which gives members of stomach-cancer families from around the world the ability to understand their risk of cancer and take preventive action.

Gene testing and subsequent treatment has saved the lives of about 400 to 450 people in New Zealand, and an estimated 27,000 people in Europe and the United States.

It has also allowed many more at-risk people to move on with their lives, knowing they do not carry the gene.

Prof Guilford described the results as "ordinary people doing extraordinary things".

"Our conservative estimate of 400-450 lives saved in Aotearoa alone demonstrates the profound impact of this research on our society — we’ve restored hope to those families carrying the gene."

Genetic testing was recommended at age 16, and those found to carry the pathogenic CDH1 variants were advised to have their stomachs removed in their early to mid-20s.

For those not wanting to have surgery, annual endoscopic surveillance was recommended.

As part of the work, the team had produced international clinical management guidelines for Hereditary Diffuse Gastric Cancer, published in 2020, which were now being updated.

Prof Guilford said the $500,000 prize would allow the research team to extend the work.

The plan was to build an online information hub about the CDH1 gene in New Zealand, which would include a detailed map of the affected families, information about treatment and management, and help identify new families affected by the gene.

The money would also be used to find better ways to care for affected families.

He said improvements in surveillance methods, and drugs that prevent cancers from developing in the first place, would allow gene carriers to delay, or even avoid, having their stomach removed, without increasing the risk of cancer.

"Impactful, significant research requires the collision of many factors — a problem of societal, human importance, technological advance, co-ordinated multidisciplinary effort, cultural change, and above all, a shared vision.

"Our research on inherited stomach cancer has combined those factors to bring about a better, more hopeful world for thousands of people."